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Keith Lowell Jensen on His Punk Roots and Why Standup Matters

Sacramento-based comedian Keith Lowell Jensen has been speaking truth for punks, weirdos, poors, and everyone in between for just shy of twenty years. His latest album, Unclean, out on 800 Pound Gorilla Records, was recorded at the Sacramento Punch Line. He’s written a book, 2018’s Punching Nazis: And Other Good Ideas, a collection of tales from his experiences in the Sacramento punk scene of the ’80s and ’90s, as well as more jokes packed with wry social commentary and niche references than can possibly be counted. Beyond the quips, Keith has an incredibly inviting stage presence, making his recent forays into long-form storytelling comedy like Not For Rehire and What I Was Arrested For both sharp and accessible.

Jensen and his long-time friend (and Hard Times contributor) Johnny Taylor are prepping for Road Dogs, a show where both comedians simultaneously take the stage and tell jokes together appropriately, on Keith and Johnny’s shared birthday, March 4th. Hard Noise caught up with Jensen to talk comedy rules and how to break them, childrearing, the Sacramento comedy scene, and the winding road of punk rock that led him to standup.

Hard Noise: What got you interested in comedy? What was going on in your life at the time that pushed you in that direction?

Year of the Knife Internal Incarceration out August 7

Keith Lowell Jensen: I was in a ‘60s garage proto-punk band called the Ugly Sticks. We still have a Myspace page [laughs]. That was my life. I threw everything I had into it. And then, the guitarist quit. He was gonna be a dad and thought he needed to not be in a band anymore. But it was out of nowhere to me. To have that be taken away from me was devastating.

I pledged right then and there to do something more solo. Since I don’t play guitar, the singer-songwriter was out. Standup appealed to me because I hosted Spike and Mike for years. I’d been into Emo Philips, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, but I’d forgotten because I was so focused on music.

I loved it immediately. I killed my fist 6 times on stage, which isn’t how it’s supposed to work, and it sounds like bragging. But then I got booked, my first professional gig—which is also not how it’s supposed to work—and I bombed my ass off. My dad was there, all my friends. It was horrible. 

I think it was Johnny Taylor who told me you don’t usually bomb your first time, that it comes later. Why do you think that is?

Your first time, it’s kind of like a band’s first album. You’ve had all that time to build up to it, to get ready for it. You probably brought your friends and enthusiasm. It’s the sophomore album that counts. 

If you know anything about comedy, your second time you’re gonna do the same act you did the first time, refine it and make it better. But none of us do that because we don’t know anything about comedy. I was in comedy for a long time before I realized “Oh,  I should be repeating this stuff and making it better, honing it, tagging it, growing it, editing it.” That becomes a big part of the art form: developing it. Whereas back then, I thought the art form was: write it, perform it, write something else, perform it.

How has your standup style changed over the years?

Those first five or six times, where it was different every time, it was very Andy Kauffman influenced. I dressed up as a fly. I did a bit called Stage Fright and made them bring me the microphone backstage where I then did impersonations, but my impersonations were just me playing recordings of the people I was supposedly impersonating. I mean, just loony, wacky shit that’s so different from what I do now.

Then when I bombed my ass off, that was my very first foray into storytelling, and that scared me right back off from storytelling. I became a really sharp joke-writer, writing traditional jokes that were short, tagged. When I recorded my first album [2009’s To The Moon], I recorded that same story, the one that I bombed with, and that was kind of my way of vindicating myself, turning my failure into success. And it’s the title track on the album. From there, just slowly more and more of a storyteller until you get to Not For Rehire. That one is one narrative, beginning to end, about my work history.

How do you workshop that much longer material? Does it start out on stage and just organically change from there? 

Yeah. You mentioned Johnny. We’ve both gone through this together, where we’ll write a piece and we’re not sure how it ends or where it goes, but we just gotta get on stage to know. More often than not, it’s out of that sink-or-swim desperation on stage that your brain just picks out something you haven’t thought of before. You say it, think, “wow, that’s great,” and then as soon you get off stage you better write it down or hope you recorded it. 

Okay, question about children: how do you make sure they end up as cool as your daughter Max?

I guess just let ‘em? [laughs]

Max has always been part of your career, with the twitter account you ran for her, and of course she comes up in your material. What do you hope she’ll do with that experience?

I would love—when she gets old enough—to go on stage together. That would be fun, just telling stories. I have so many Max stories, but her take on it would be different. Like Rashomon, nobody remembers things the same. It would be fun to compare.

[Johnny Taylor] and I are doing a thing right now where we go on stage and we tell stories together. It’s funny that some of it is us correcting each other, like “no, that’s not what happened.” Both of us keep trying to make ourselves the hero of the story.

Road Dogs art by Matt K. Shrugg

And you’ve both appeared as characters in each other’s jokes many times. 

We share a lot of fans, and they love that. The very first public responses I got from people who weren’t friends of mine on twitter were, “oh my god, I love this story about Johnny.” It’s not even really about Johnny, he just happens to be a character in it. But people like that. Our friendship has almost become part of our brand. Not intentionally, but I don’t mind it. 

But even when you two are doing similar things, the output is so radically different. 

We have very strong things in common but we’re also very different people. I’m this older married guy with a kid. Johnny’s this young, I don’t wanna say slut, but…sensualist? 

Hedonist?

Hedonist! He is a hedonist one hundred percent! I’m sober, which is great because I do all the driving. There’s ways that we’re the odd couple and there’s ways we’re so similar. You know Johnny crashes at my house a lot. Me and Max go for a walk every night after dinner, so I invited Johnny to go with us. We’re walking by the elementary school, and this older man walks past, looks at Max and goes, “Who’s got the best daddies in the world?” I’m wearing a sweater I stole from my wife, Johnny looks like a daddy in a very different sense of the word, so I can’t really blame the guy for assuming. And he was so clearly proud of himself for how progressive he was being, I didn’t want to take that from him. So we just went, “Yeah. Just a couple daddies taking our girl for a walk.”

As we’re walking away he says, “Good job raising a human.” And Max just fumes. I ask, “What’s the matter baby?” “He called me a human.” She wanted to yell back, “I’m a cat mermaid werewolf!” or whatever. 

Another thing I notice about your comedy is how easily you create characters and just drop them in and out of jokes. What do you think that does for the audience?

I advise other comics to always give everyone a name. It’s like those memes with people’s names like Karen or Kyle. A name can so quickly and efficiently make a character. Then, when you refer back to them by their name, there’s this sort of like, ‘You know, John.’ And the audience responds subconsciously, ‘Yeah, we know John!’ 

I wrote Not For Rehire as a book first, before it became a comedy special. I gave it to a couple friends to help edit. My friend Becca, who’s a great editor and talented writer, she wrote for Sacramento News & Review, said, “You introduce a lot of characters who you then just abandon.” I guess that breaks a certain literary rule, but there are people I’ve spent the most amazing hour with, and they impacted my life, and I never saw them again. That’s life. I feel like I’m good with breaking that particular rule. 

I’d love to hear more about how you’re teaching comedy to homeless youth. 

I was making fun of myself at first. I started talking about it on stage, “I teach comedy to homeless youth—because that’s what they need.” And then I stopped making fun of myself for it, and started being like, “Fuck yeah that’s what they need!” In making fun of myself I was kind of making fun of the whole philosophy of the Creation District, and the Creation District is wonderful.  Just because [the kids] have other problems, why shouldn’t they be able to take a break from that once in a while and go learn how to make some beats, lay down music, do some standup—and who is going to have a better voice than them? Who has a more needed voice?

You’ve been involved in teaching comedy for a while, can you talk a little about that?

That’s a contentious point in standup, whether or not it can be taught. It’s funny, because people don’t debate that in other forms of art. Like, you can’t make someone a good painter, but you can teach them what colors come together to make other colors and which brushes to use. Standup has all those kinds of things, too. The very first thing I teach is, I’m gonna give you a bunch of guidelines, or rules if you will, and you are totally free to break them. And in fact, you can point at any rule and I’ll tell you someone who breaks it.

An example I give is: don’t look at your feet, look at the audience. That’s a real fuckin’ obvious rule, and Mitch Hedberg broke it every time he went on stage. So, it’s not that you have to do these things, but if your shit’s not working, look at which rules you’re breaking and ask yourself, “Am I breaking them intentionally? Is that by design? Or is it something I wasn’t aware I was doing and it’s keeping the joke from working?” If you’re doing it intentionally, cool; it means the joke’s a hard sell, so keep working on it. 

Something I learned a long time ago is it’s very difficult to create something out of nothing, so having rules and structures in the way can be rad because then you get to break them.

You gotta break ’em in style. And that brings me around to political correctness. People complaining, like “Oh you can’t put rules on comedy.” Rules are fucking great! Look at haiku and how much people love it. If you can’t handle something like “the rule is don’t be cruel”… There are comedians who break that rule, who are funny—I wouldn’t be satisfied with myself if that was how I was funny, but I’ll admit they’re funny. But to say you can’t, or that it’s putting restrictions on comedy or whatever? I’m sure that back when people were like, “Hey we probably shouldn’t do blackface,” there were definitely other people going, “Stop putting restrictions on my comedy!” 

It’s not even the offensive jokes; I’m “offended” by shit every day, like the fact that I can’t get healthcare—but as you said, comedy is such an open-ended artform. The insulting part is the lack of imagination. 

That’s the thing, they’re always thinking they’re edgy or on the cutting edge. I’m sorry, but gay jokes and woman-bashing jokes are actually the earliest tradition. That’s where it started. A real straight white men’s club. And then Jewish people got in, Black people got in, and women—they’re still struggling to get in. Gay jokes and trans jokes, I’m sorry, that’s not edgy, that’s boring as fuck. It’s like you said—you want to joke about not having healthcare, that’s edgy. You wanna talk about your anxiety on stage, Johnny does such a good job with that and I respect him for it so much. That’s edgy.

The other thing I’ll admit is when me and Robert Berry and Johnny Taylor get in a car and we say fucking horrible things to make each other laugh, and it has nothing to do with what we do on stage. We’re being stupid little boys laughing at our farts. That doesn’t mean I’m gonna go on stage and cut one.

But if you do it at this point in your career, suddenly the Kauffman bit is back.

There was a fart artist. I can’t remember his name. I think back before it was recorded. He could control it. He would do like a tight squeaky fart and be a woman on her wedding night. Then the same woman next morning it would be all [blows a very loose, wet raspberry]. That was one of his jokes.

That’s edgy. 

And he performed for kings! You gotta look up the fart artist, it’s a real honest to god thing. He had a specially-made suit with a little flap so his ass could come out. This was hundreds of years ago. He probably performed for Jesus. 

Stop.

He was one of the apostles. He was Paul. Paul the fartist. 

Your comedy has always seemed—let’s call your perspective porous, because you’re open to new influences. 

Sometimes I worry that I’m evolving out of standup. That my standup is turning more into an Arlo Guthrie or Utah Phillips performance. That I’m heading toward that old man storyteller… I did a set with someone else from Stand Up Records and he invited me to open for him at the Punch Line. And I had a great set, I did really well. Then he walks on stage and goes “Wasn’t that delightful?” And I could tell that he was sincere, but then he follows that with “I feel like we all just sat on the rug in front of grandpa’s rocking chair, and he just had the best stories.” This guy’s my age!

But at the same time, that’s also super flattering. Even when I was in my 20s, I used to always say I want to live a life where I have good stories for my nephews. I didn’t want to have any kids back then, so maybe now I’ll have good stories for my kids, grandkids. The fact that my daughter asks me, whenever she’s bored she says “Daddy tell me a story!” “Okay, about what baby?” “About when you were a kid!” That’s everything. 

Are there any things you know or believe about comedy now that you wish you would have when you were first starting out?

Johnny and I have a mantra: “Just ask.” And we push it. I wish I would have adopted that a lot earlier. I always felt like I operated with a certain amount of confidence, but it was this DIY confidence. I didn’t have that same confidence when I went within an existing structure. So I would have chased Punchline sooner, auditions sooner. Even now, I haven’t gone after the whole college booking thing, and I should.

Go after everything with fearlessness. There are comics out there that I have this grudging respect for, where I don’t necessarily dig them as artists, but they have these amazing careers because they just fucking go for it. And I would have liked to have been one of them a little more. That would be my advice to young Keith.

It’s like what you said about having a DIY mentality. You should know that you’re allowed to ask, even within existing structures, but it can be really overwhelming.  

Right, because part of DIY is ignoring those structures. And that part I’m very proud of. I started a sketch comedy troupe. We performed in an art gallery where the stage was literally built for our use. Allen Denault, who unfortunately killed himself a couple years ago, was the owner of the Gallery Horse Cow. He got coffee cans, put light bulbs in ’em, built a switchboard out of wood and slider switches from Home Depot, and he was our lighting guy.

I brought comedy into the Geary Theater when no one was doing comedy there, and now there’s stand up happening there. There was some comedy at Luna’s before me, but to go there and start a weekly night to have a place for comedy in midtown… now there’s so many options. Some people asked why we stopped Luna’s and it kind of wasn’t needed anymore.

On that front I did well, but as far as going into the existing structures, I was fearful and shy, fearful of rejection. I’m terrible with rejection. In standup, you get that immediate reaction. They laugh or they don’t, you get ’em with the next joke and if you bomb a set, you’re fucking desperate to get up again and kill to redeem it. But when you spend a year or two writing a book, send it out and get a rejection letter? Fuck that, I can’t do that [laughs].

But do you think you’ll write another book?

Oh yeah. The first one, I feel like they put it out in hardcover but they should have made it a cheap affordable book for the demographic they were going after. If I do another book, I’ll have enough boldness to tell an existing infrastructure what I know. I’ll tell them my book needs to be cheap. My book’s not a 25 dollar book. Make it a 10 dollar book and we’ll sell some copies. 

Think back to when you first started comedy. What were your top 5 records?

Oh that’ll be easy to do because [standup] came right out of being in a band. I was listening to  a lot of early Stones at the time. I didn’t like any Stones after Brian Jones died, but now I have softened. Stooges, loved the Stooges, still love, really. A lot of Dunwich records, ’60s garage stuff, Warner Brothers, Shadows of Knight. Still listening to a lot of hip hop and old punk.

I mean, my favorite punk bands now are Germs and Wire, and I wasn’t into either of them as a kid. As old as punk is, I still continue to have not only new favorites from new bands, but even from the era I was in. I can all of a sudden hear it differently. Now I’m at the point with Wire where I’m ready to queue some up on my phone, get a set of headphones and go door to door. Like “Excuse me, have you heard Pink Flag? May I come in?” Put aside some time and just sit down and listen to Pink Flag. Listen to it two or three times, when you’re on a road trip or something. It’s just fucking good. I honestly think it’s better than Never Mind the Bollocks, London Calling, anything by Buzzcocks, anything from the same era that it came out. Have you heard of X-Ray Spex?

Yeah, I had to put my pride aside and let my younger sibling introduce me to them.

I loved a lot of that stuff. I was 18, which means my little brother was 13, and he got me into Public Enemy. I think that kind of blew me away. Good job, James. 

Shoutout to younger siblings for being cooler. 

He out-hipped me so much. At the same time, he went to a school dance wearing a Z. Cavaricci suit with the big old shoulder pads, real MC Hammer-looking so, you know, fuck him. I didn’t go to school dances at all. Boom. 

Yeah, “while you were out having fun, I was at home in my room!” 

Thinking about how cool I was [laughs]. Actually, that’s not fair. I was drinking beer under an overpass.